Cancer is a Rite of Passage

Living with cancer is a rite of passage. At first, I didn’t realise this, probably because my awareness of living through a rite of passage, despite having lived through a couple already, is not particularly attentive.

If we take a rite of passage as the movement from one social status to another, then we all live through several in our lives. One that is our most significant is that of the movement from child to adult. Something that has been often marked in cultures with a ceremony.

Other rites of passage are usually milestones of life – birth, maturity, reproduction, and death – that bring changes in social status and in the social relations of the people concerned. Other significant life events like a change of lifestyle, career or health also have the capacity to be a rite of passage, in that they provide major changes to our social and personal circumstances.

With that in mind it is obvious that living through cancer is a rite of passage. The change in social status, relationships, well-being and future roles are significant. Everything is up in the air. ‘What of it?’ you may ask.

I was talking to Phil, a friend of mine, who with his partner runs excellent Rites of Passage Workshops in deepest Mid Wales. I was explaining how I had ended all of my work commitments prior to treatment starting. I have suspended all my online courses, withdrawn from other work contracts and turned down two offers of new work.

Phil described this as being the first stage of a Rite of Passage, known as Severance. The purpose is to cut ties with the old version of you, to create space for the second stage. I have almost completed doing this, I have one last task I am working on at the moment, and then all of my working commitments, and work as a mindful photographer will be released.

The second stage is Threshold, a period when you thresh through everything that is part of your life, sorting the wheat from the chaff. This may be both conscious and unconscious work. Space is needed to be just be present with yourself, to feel and experience your changing thoughts, emotions and experiences. Sometimes distraction may be necessary to diffuse the pain and discomfort, but returning to how it really is continues to be the practice.

This is not easy work. We may deflect, distract and avoid the thoughts and feelings. Sometimes all that is possible is just to sit with it all, and try to anchor in a physical aspect of our bodies. The passage of our breath is a common anchor, but physical discomfort and pain can also be of use; breathing intentionally to that space, sitting and being with it as the thoughts and feelings slowly dissipate.

I am now in this stage. I have a month or so of recovery from my bowel resection, before chemotherapy will start. That will be a physical and mental challenge, dominating and excluding much else from my world. I believe that this will last for around three months before the second operation, to resection the nodule on my liver.

Finally, there will be a couple of months recovery from that second major surgery, where I slowly emerge from my chrysalis, to become a beautiful butterfly! This last stage is described as incorporation, a time where you integrate all that you have learnt and experienced, and the new version of yourself takes form.

It’s going to be a long process, some 9 months that will take me through to the end of this year. My intention is that I use that time to live through the experience, writing and photographing as regularly as I am able, to support my processing of what is happening.

The photographs that accompany this post reflect my transition from hospital to home, and respond to the beauty in the mundanity of the repetitive experience. If you look closely enough there is beauty everywhere.

“Giving the mundane its beautiful due.”

John Updike
4 replies
  1. Mike Kohan
    Mike Kohan says:

    I would like to wish you a speedy transition through the Threshold and Incorporation, but that may be wishing you a disservice! In any case, I’m looking forward to seeing the butterfly that emerges from the process. I have no doubt you have the strength and grounding to get through it with flair!


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